Friday, August 14, 2009

"Neutral Vessel" by Harl Vincent, part 1

Harl Vincent was the pen name of Harold Vincent Schoepflin (1893 - 1968), a mechanical engineer who wrote science fiction as a hobby. Vincent was one of the pioneers of magazine science fiction, publishing his first story in 1928. Over the next fourteen years he would publish over seventy science fiction stories. However, only a handful of his stories have been anthologized over the years, and Vincent is now almost forgotten.

Because his early stories have all passed into the public domain, they have slowly been appearing online over the last two years. Four of his stories are currently available at Project Gutenberg under his own name, and two more can be found at PG's online copies of the February 1930 and July 1930 issues of Astounding Stories magazine. In addition, five more have appeared here at the Johnny Pez blog. Links to all eleven stories can be found at this blog's Harl Vincent Online sidebar on the right.

It is now my pleasure to present a twelfth story by Vincent, "Neutral Vessel" from the January 1940 issue of Astounding Science-Fiction. This is the first time the story has appeared anywhere since its initial publication in Astounding sixty-nine years ago. As is the case with the earlier stories at this blog, "Neutral Vessel" will appear in a blog-friendly multi-part format. Here, then, is part 1 of

Neutral Vessel
by Harl Vincent

In the captive military observation sphere a hundred miles above the outer cloud layer of Venus, Tommy Blake idly punched a location spot on the calculating board. He was not greatly impressed by the alarm indication of this body's approach. Seven million miles it was off, at the limit of the sensitive magnetic pickup system. From its direction, it could hardly be a Martian battle fleet and, even if it were, they would be several days getting here. Plenty of time.

His next check on the object gave him pause. It was an hour later when he glanced casually at the distance-indicator spot which marked it. It read 5,200,000 miles! An impossible figure. Nothing in the Solar System could travel nearly two million miles in an hour.

"Hey, Masters," he called across the room. "Come over here and tell me if I'm screwy."

"I don't have to come over to tell you that," his pal grinned. But he crossed to the instrument board.

"Look here," Blake said excitedly. "See this approach-warning dot? I get an incredible reading on its velocity. Check me, will you?"

"Did you put the spectroscope on it?"

"Sure, but it's too small and too far off. No lines. Now, be a good guy and hold the stop watch while I punch the calculator. Give me ten-second intervals." Blake squinted purposefully into the vernier, his fingers on the keyboard.

Barney Masters laughed. "Man, you won't need intervals that close for anything that moves."

"Never mind." Blake was frowningly serious. "I will if this thing's traveling as fast as I think. I'm setting the calculator for serial subtraction, so yelp out the times."

A pause; Masters eyeing his stop watch. Then, "Now!" he sang out.

The calculator chuckled and clunked. And at each "now" for two solid minutes the machine did likewise.

"Enough," announced Blake, tearing out the printed tape.

Together they gazed at the figures; in unison they whistled their wonderment.


and so ran the series down to an end figure of 5,022,181 in miles distant.

Masters' eyes goggled. Blake grabbed his slide rule and pencil. "67,824 miles in two minutes!" he gasped. "565 miles a second average. See for yourself."

Masters saw for himself. He was checking it by long division. "565.2," he corrected. "And the differences are progressively slightly greater. Wonder what that means?"

Blake stared, checking back rapidly in his mind to the average of 500 miles a second for the first hour. "Why," he husked, "it means the thing's accelerating." The slide and indicator of his rule moved swiftly. "At about 160 feet per second. Five Earth gravities."

"Meteors don't accelerate," Masters remarked thoughtfully. "Nor comets, nor anything --"

"Except spaceships," Blake finished for him. "And neither comet nor spaceship ever went this fast."

"Whatever it is, it's coming this way," Masters said gloomily.

"Approximately, anyway. But there isn't a chance in a million of it hitting us. Not ten million." Blake was struck by a sudden new thought. "Sa-ay!" he snorted. "We're fools to believe this -- it just isn't possible. I'll bet our base line, for the automatic triangulator, is haywire. The other sphere may be down or out of whack. We'll check up with headquarters. Have to report, anyway."

Staring at one another with a mixture of hope, awe and incredulity on their lean young faces, the two Terrestro-Venusian military observers made for the radio room. They couldn't possibly know that some five hours previously, out in space --

* * *

Captain Jeffery Brand had an uneasy feeling.

It wasn't as if the Spirit of Terra had anything to fear in the Earth-Venus space lane. The mightiest liner of the skies, though nearly new, she was tried and proven by her nine previous jaunts across the void. She was unarmed and carried no contraband. Her repulsor screens were of ample capacity to ward off any stray mines of either combatant she might encounter. She carried proudly the insignia of Earth, which planet had been steadfastly neutral through the two years of bitter warfare between Mars and Venus. Under the terms of treaties never yet dishonored, she was guaranteed freedom from search or attack in space, and safe entry at the designated unblockaded ports. Still the captain was uneasy.

Brand was not superstitious. He had no fear of anything in an atmosphere or in the far-flung reaches of the heavens. Perhaps his dinner hadn't agreed with him. Maybe he had never gotten quite used to these ultramodern liners in which every major mechanism was automatic, bridge-controlled. He'd come up through the ranks. He'd been a yard mechanic, rocket man, conditioning engineer, chartman, control operator, and skipper of a slow lunar freight. First taking orders, later giving them. Accustomed for more than twelve years to a full-crew ship, he'd rather bark his orders at a man than at a machine -- even though the machine was likely to be more reliable. You began to feel like a damn machine yourself.

His eyes swept the thirty-foot curve of the bridge control board. Four men, spaced along its length, their fingers twinkling over a maze of controls, their eyes alert to the flickering on and off of varicolored lights before them, were all that were required for the operation of every mechanical detail of the thousand-foot, eighty-thousand-ton ship! Of course, there was the maintenance crew. The purser and his staff. Cargo wranglers and an army of deckhands. Hundreds in galleys, dining saloons, cabin service -- all coming under the head steward. But of old-time, hard-bitten spacemen like himself, there were none. Even his first officer, Gary Carlin, had never seen service on a full-crew ship.

Brand paced the bridge, along the desk rim of the control board, a thing he rarely did. The men's eyes never left their instruments and lights, nor their fingers the buttons and jacks and levers, as he passed; but he knew his disquietude was affecting them. Fortunately, he'd soon be relieved by Carlin.

He paused at the position-indicating panel. They were just under ten million miles from Venus and approaching it at the normal coasting rate of 27.6 miles per second. A little over four days yet remained of their journey. And Brand would be glad when it was completed.

He was glad now when Carlin came in. The mate was always wearing a grin, a cheerfully boyish sort of smile. He wore it now.

"Fellow to see you, sir," he told the captain. "Waiting in your lounge. One of the passengers."

Brand arched black brows. "Complaint?"

"He didn't say. Looks harmless enough, though. Venusian, I'd say, or Venuso-Terrestrian." Young Carlin looked up at the chronometer. "Ready to give over, sir?" he asked.

Brand's eyes roved enviously over the younger man's trim, sinewy form at set off by his perfectly fitted uniform. His own square bulk, he was painfully aware, was better suited to the rigors and scanty garb of a foundry than to the gold-braided scarlet and a drawing room.

"Yes," he sighed, "I'm ready, Mr. Carlin. And, as usual, there are no instructions." He waved a knotty hand toward the control board. "It's all done for us automatically. Done in wriggling red and blue and green lines that ink themselves on the charts."

Gary Carlin had better sense than to expand his grin. "Yes, sir," he said respectfully.

* * *

The appearance of Brand's visitor justified Carlin's estimate. A scrawny little man with washed-out eyes and parchment skin drawn tight over high cheekbones. His greeting was mildly apologetic.

"What can I do for you?" the captain boomed genially.

His caller bowed in an almost servile manner. "I am greatly honored, captain, that you receive me. I am Leander Phillips of London. And I have some information I believe will interest you."

Surprised. Brand offered the man a cigar, bit the end off his own. "Name's Phillips?" he said. "I should have thought you were Venusian."

"Only on the maternal side, captain. Father was pure Terrestrian. But that is neither here nor there, sir. Excepting that my sympathies are naturally with Venus in, shall I say, the present unpleasantness?"

Brand repressed a chuckle at the little man's seriousness and verbiage. "That's not surprising, Mr. Phillips," he conceded. "Many Earthmen are sympathizers on one side or the other. I try to be strictly neutral. But I repeat, sir: what can I do for you?"

The Venusian sympathizer looked around nervously. "There are Martian spies aboard," he said with owlish solemnity.

The captain laughed reassuringly. "I shouldn't be surprised. Probably Venusian spies as well. We can't help that. Why worry about it? This is neutral territory, just the same as London."

"I know that, sir." Leander Phillips was tensely serious. "In general, I believe this causes you no concern. In this case, however, I'm convinced it should be of grave concern to you."

The man's earnestness impressed Brand. "Let's not beat about the bush," he suggested. "Just what have you to tell me?"

Phillips furtively withdrew a paper from his pocket, passing it to the captain as if it were red-hot to his touch. "First off, sir," he whispered, "I beg of you to look this over and conceal it at once."

Brand's skin crawled as he saw the meticulously drawn sketch on the paper. It was an accurate circuit diagram of the Spirit of Terra! Hastily he pocketed it. "Where'd you get this?" he asked soberly.

"They were discussing it, sir, at my table. One dropped it later. And I'm quite a bit frightened, sir, for my daughter's sake. She is with me, you know. That is one favor I came to ask: would it be possible to have our table changed for the remainder of the voyage -- Zona's and mine?"

Brand frowned, thinking of his previous uneasiness. "Can you point out the ones you think are spies?" he demanded in his abrupt way.

Leander Phillips jumped a foot, then smiled sheepishly. "I can, sir, and will, of course." he quavered.

The captain jabbed at a button and bawled into the audio frame on his desk: "Tell Mr. Worthman two more passengers at my table, starting with supper this period. Leander Phillips and his daughter, Zona. That's all."

Every passenger knew that Worthman was the head steward. The little Venuso-Terrestrian bowed himself out, smiling relievedly, leaving the captain to sit scowling perplexedly in a haze of cigar smoke.

* * *

Without knowing why, Brand stirred himself in a few minutes and went into his private quarters, where he instructed his cabin boy to lay out his most impressive finery. He knew why, a moment later, when he returned to his lounge and beheld a vision. If ever he wished he were twenty years younger, it was then. A girl-vision, it was, tall and slim and auburn-haired, with features and a figure that would have made the greatest artist forget his art. The girl's lips were tremulous and her eyes wide.

"I'm Zona Phillips," she said breathlessly. "Has . . . has my father been here?"

"Why, yes, my dear," said Brand, blissfully unconscious of what was an intrusion. "He left only a few minutes ago."

The girl wrung her tapered fingers. "Oh, Captain Brand!" she wailed. "I'm afraid. I . . . I just know something's happened."

"Now, now --" the captain started to soothe her. But he forgot what words of comfort had been on his lips in a sudden sensation that comes only to an old-time spaceman. A rush of emptiness inside him.

The Spirit of Terra had leaped into sudden acceleration! To the girl, to any passenger aboard the giant liner, this would be unnoticeable -- the internal gravity compensators took care of that instantly. But you couldn't fool an old-timer like Brand.

Zona Phillips was becoming frantic when the audio frame on his desk bellowed in Carlin's familiar accents: "All stern motors and steering jets blasting full, captain. Controls not functioning. Your instructions, sir."

Brand sputtered. This was an un-heard-of eventuality. But just like these newfangled contraptions to let you down at exactly the wrong time. "Coming!" he barked at the frame. "Be right with you."

"I . . . I'm sorry, captain." The girl's eyes were starry with tears about to come. "I . . . I didn't mean to interrupt. But, my father --"

The reason for her presence had slipped Brand's mind. "Yes, yes," he said hastily. "Come along, Miss Zona, and tell me about it on the way. I have to be on the bridge immediately."

Trotting at his side, she said: "I can wait till you're finished with that, captain." But her voice sounded dead, hopeless.

And well it might. Rounding a corner of the corridor, they almost fell over the body of Leander Phillips, which was slumping grotesquely to the floor. The acrid smell of burned flesh was in the air. His head was almost blasted from his shoulders. The girl screamed and flopped at his side just as Brand leaped after the big figure he saw scuttling off. Her scream had warned the fugitive and he turned like an animal at bay, whipping up a stubby flame thrower. A fleeting instant showed Brand bloodshot eyes, twisted mouth, the most malignant face he'd ever seen. Then, as white flame crackled past his ear, singing his hair odorously, he hunched his big bulk into a flying tackle.

His arms enwrapped struggling legs; his square battering ram of a shoulder hit just right. The fellow went down like a toppling chimney, smacking into a floor grating with a crunch of finality. But Brand made sure with the butt of the fellow's own weapon. Kicking him over, he saw that he was a Terrestro-Martian. Phillips' suspicions had been well founded but his visit too late.

Returning, Brand found that the girl Zona had fainted over her father's body. He picked her up bodily and strode onto the bridge with her slim form draped over one arm.

There would be no supper at the captain's table today for them.

(continue to part 2)

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